“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in.” -- Isaac Asimov
I have had a special life experience which I want to share with all of you.
Many, many years ago I awoke in the middle of a cold, dark winter's night covered in perspiration. I was almost gasping for air and my eyes were wide open in the deep and solitary blackness of my cadet dorm room in Sijan Hall at the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA). I had just experienced a very vivid dream. I recall every little detail to this very day. In my dream, a being which I interpreted to be “God” told me to ignore what I’d been taught in my prior years of Hebrew and Sunday School about the so-called “10 Commandments” and to remember that there were only 2 Commandments which mattered to “God.” This ethereal being then spoke in a soft whisper to me that these 2 Commandments were to “love each other and to help each other.” Never does a day pass without me thinking about that dream and its mysterious message of seeming simplicity yet thundering complexity. Was it really from “God” or was it just manufactured randomly from my nightly “dream factory.” After all, as my wife Bonnie can tell you, I am both an abundantly lucid dreamer and a very reluctant and searching Jewish agnostic who still prays thrice a day in Hebrew. I’m just not at all sure... is anyone listening?
Try as I might to assiduously follow those 2 Commandments to “love each other and to help each other,” I often fail and fall short. Let me tell you about two stellar people who are far better at that task than I am: Lt. Col. Aaron Hopper and his wife, Major Christina Hopper. They are both USAF pilots and evangelical Christians currently stationed at Vance AFB in Enid, Oklahoma. As the world now knows, the three of us met under, shall we say, less-than-ideal circumstances about 2 and a half months ago following my response to an article about Major Hopper that was released by the Public Affairs Office of the 71st Flying Training Wing at Vance Air Force Base. The story went viral.
Usually, after the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), the civil rights organization which I head, exposes yet another unconstitutional church-state violation by fundamentalist Christians in our nation’s armed forces, we get the all-too-predictable right wing, Christian media echo chamber spewing its cavalcade of filthy lies. Indeed, these religious extremist news outlets and accompanying posse of pathetic pundits of hate desperately warn their millions of constitutionally-challenged lemmings that “Oh My God, that evil Mikey Weinstein and his malevolent MRFF legions of atheist/commie/leftist/abortion-loving/gun-hating, Jesus-loathing, Obama-worshiping attack acolytes who eat ‘good Christians’ for breakfast, lunch and dinner have just struck again!" Well, much of that usual crap actually DID happen here, but so did something else; something very special. Something unexpected, almost magical... Maybe “miraculous" for those who believe in such phenomena? Enormously meaningful, in any event, for those who don’t.
Instead of firing back with the usual free-for-all, ad hominem vitriol at my family and I, or at MRFF’s paid and volunteer staffers (who now number more than 250, 80% of whom are practicing Christians themselves), Christina and Aaron Hopper did the heretofore “OMG UNTHINKABLE"; they invited me to DINNER with them in Enid, Oklahoma to meet and talk all of this out as “friends.” I was taken aback mightily by such clearly genuine graciousness and seriously surpassing hospitality. Who the hell ARE these people anyway, I thought passionately to myself, as I briefly considered the financial, security, logistical, and administrative challenges attendant to possibly accepting their invitation. After some formidable deliberation, I decided to take them up on their kind offer to break bread and chat face-to-face on their home field. I had a few conditions to ensure confidentiality and buttress security, all of which they met with a positive attitude of approval. I also suggested that we hold a get-together with their pastor, Wade Burleson, some fellow congregants, and even some local MRFF supporters under the auspices of their church, Emmanuel Baptist, after the dinner. Lastly, I asked their permission for me to invite my daughter Amber, who is an Air Force spouse, and her husband, my son-in-law, who is an active duty USAF pilot, Air Force Academy graduate and devout Christian. I value their input as I do that of all of my kids, other family members and friends. Aaron and Christina agreed to allow Amber and her husband to attend the dinner and church get-together, too.
What happened at dinner and at the get-together with the Hopper’s pastor, Rev. Burleson, and church members (and some MRFF supporters as well) was, well, magnificent and sublime. Aaron and Christina are ardent listeners. They are at once quiet, intelligent, reflective, empathetic, well-spoken, thoughtful and universally loving and caring human beings. If they were negatively intimidated by my own (and/or MRFF’s) false "anti-Christian reputation” which may have preceded us (and which is one reason why we receive voluminous amounts of hate-mail), they did not display any of it. They asked my kids and me very good questions and then LISTENED very earnestly and intently to our directly responsive answers. They searched arduously to locate and consider the logic and truth of what we were saying to them. They did NOT judge us, and fully understood that MRFF was acting on behalf of 16 USAF airmen at Vance AFB (11 of them Christians) who are subordinate to the Hoppers in military rank. The Hoppers were not just curious, they visibly HUNGERED and struggled with purpose to know, comprehend, and understand MRFF’s and its 16 clients’ perspectives and viewpoints on the public statements of faith that Christina had made in the local base media, which had precipitated this Constitutional brawl spawning nearly universal media coverage all over the planet. And they both succeeded in that intense endeavor to understand.
I’m not going to go into the many specifics of what was discussed at dinner and at the church meeting that followed. I WILL say that the immense positivity of what transpired was enough that even my BODYGUARDS were nontrivially impressed at the abundance of mutual respect, reverence, bilateral learning and general regard which was generated aplenty throughout the afternoon and evening. And, my friends, THAT never happens.
My beloved daughter Amber, who has stood alongside MRFF through thick and thin, briefly wrote her thoughts of this previously unanticipated intersection of significantly disparate people and beliefs this way:
Leading up to the night of the dinner with the Hoppers, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Christina on the phone. We spoke for approximately an entire hour that day. I informed her that I felt torn between her and the MRFF client's perspectives. As a believer in God myself, I truly admired the passion she happily expressed for her own faith. Christina's faith touched her life in a very specific and transcendental way. If you are a believer in things happening for a reason, her story is quite beautiful. On the other hand, I could also understand how the clients of MRFF could feel a sense of deep-seated vulnerability when reading her article in the base paper. I tried my very best to explain to Christina where the MRFF clients were coming from: a place of severe and complete uncertainty.
After our conversation ended, I realized just how much Christina affected me. She was pleasantly open to understanding a perspective other than her own, a trait in people I continue to admire throughout my life. Christina in no way ever had anything negative to say (something I have grown extremely accustomed to with all the hatred my dad receives) and she truly wanted to understand where the MRFF clients were coming from. Getting to know both of the Hoppers the weekend of the dinner was a remarkably moving experience for me. I felt as though my dad and the Hoppers each took away something positive from one another that weekend.
There is a saying by Isaac Asimov that resonates with this experience for me, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in." In life, we often take for granted the gift of acceptance. Acceptance can be a road to disaster clouded by assumptions or it can be a road to looking on the bright side of life. We can choose to accept a path of misery or we can choose to accept a path full of growth and understanding. I believe many people choose to be spectators, people who see bad things happening and don't do anything about it. If we accept that way of life, we let negativity take over. But, if we choose to accept a path of change and resilience, we allow positivity to blossom.
The Hoppers and my dad both chose to accept one another's perspectives and welcome change. I am so grateful for people like the Hoppers and my dad, people who are much more than spectators. To me, the world would be a much happier place if we welcomed acceptance for others and the strength to be more than spectators.
Why did this amazing thing of compassion and inclusive benefit happen? Because Christina and Aaron were unconditionally open and willing to engage with people they did not really know and to embrace attitudes and assumptions with which they were patently unfamiliar. As the Isaac Asimov quote in Amber’s statement sagaciously advises, they were able to scrub their “assumption windows" and let some brilliantly fresh light in. They were able to do this without rancor and with grace and contemplative dual energies of honesty and integrity. THEY had reached out to US as friends and caused all of this “education” to transpire. They did NOT cast the first stone; they cast the first laurel leaf. They did NOT denigrate us; they celebrated us. They did NOT flush us down the toilet, they elevated us to the status of trusted friends and truly tried so hard they ACHED to understand MRFF and our clients’ points of view. I stand thunderstruck at their sense of humanity. I feel attired in robes of hope where before I often felt draped in rags of rage and despair.
What do I think the Hoppers took away from this enchanted encounter in Enid? Christina even called it “one of the most memorable evenings” of her life. Indeed, I believe they both have learned some extremely important things they had not previously internalized vis-à-vis the time, place and manner restrictions of military personnel speaking about their personal faith philosophies, especially to their subordinates. There ARE absolutely restrictions on proselytizing and faith expressions in the armed forces. While we might not always agree on the exactitudes of such boundaries, we CAN all agree that these boundaries DO in point of fact exist. Disagreements as to magnitude need not always be a fast-track to a public media conflagration. However, they often MUST be viewed first in the eyes of the lower-ranking military victims and not their higher-ranking faith espousers. There is a way out of this unforgiving wilderness of continual bloody confrontation and it starts with the willingness to T-H-I-N-K and L-I-S-T-E-N!
What did I learn from my trip to Enid? A veritable plethora of things. Mostly, I realized the need to redouble my efforts to “love and help others” as my “dream God” had told me decades before. I learned that not every apparent evangelical Christian is a fundamentalist oppressor as so very many in the military sadly are. Not all of them are fatally arrogant, pompous, swaggering, haughty, hurtful, imperious and triumphant. Not all of them will brazenly, brutally, and mercilessly stalk their helpless, lower-ranking subordinates physically or resort to cyber-stalking them on the internet and/or social media into supine submission to their weaponized version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I learned that Christina and Aaron are my true, loyal friends, and valiant allies of my family and I. Maybe more importantly, I learned that the Hoppers are true allies of the Constitution of this great experiment in democracy known as the American nation. They are better USAF officers and better people for having had the grace and courage to engage with my family, MRFF, and I. And my family, MRFF, and I are better civil rights fighters and better people for having met and befriended Christina and Aaron.
The Hoppers inspire me to be more ready and properly prepared to engage in the spirit of friendship and good faith communications with some of our potential enemies. Are there other people of such boundless virtue out there in the U.S. military like the Hoppers? West Point’s Superintendent Lt. General Bob Caslen surely qualifies. Other than those folks, I don’t yet know. But I’m ready to give it a damn good chance and find out. The twin Commandment mandates to “love each other and to help each other” demands that I undertake this mission.
I will be scrubbing my “assumption windows” on a regular basis now as a result of having had the honor, pleasure, and privilege of getting to know Christina and Aaron Hopper and call them our fervent friends.
Thanks go out to the late Isaac Asimov, and my daughter Amber, for showing me the undeniable imperative of following anew that Third Commandment: “To Scrub."
I wonder: will our erstwhile fundamentalist Christian foes and enemies ever consider doing the same?